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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11792

Mr TANNER (10:25 AM) —The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002 does a range of things with respect to the government's digital TV regime, particularly with regard to the introduction of high definition television. It changes a number of the arrangements that were put in place in the legislation in 1998 regarding the introduction of digital TV and the mandating of high definition television as the primary means by which Australian consumers will be able to receive digital TV.

The high definition TV quota which applies to the main commercial broadcasters, which is currently set at 20 hours per week, will be annualised from July this year. In other words, broadcasters will be able to comply with that quota by broadcasting 1,040 hours per year rather than 20 hours per week—therefore giving them much greater flexibility in their broadcasting schedules. This legislation will also enable partial high definition TV content programs to be counted towards the quota—archival material, community service announcements, advertisements and other material. This legislation will also enable the review that is statutorily provided for high definition TV to be put off from the period ending 1 January 2004, which currently applies, to the period ending 1 July 2005. In other words, we have a process of gradual relaxation of the high definition obligations and, parallel with that, a deferral of the high definition review that is provided for in the digital broadcasting legislation.

The opposition supports this legislation, although somewhat reluctantly. Because the legislation does relax the commitment to high definition TV and, in particular, the strength of the mandating of high definition TV, we do not oppose it. I will, however, later move a second reading amendment, which will indicate some of the opposition's concerns about the government's digital TV regime and, in particular, outline what we see as the gradual disaster that is emerging with respect to this country's transition to digital television.

Our digital TV regime, which was legislated in 1998, is slowly disintegrating. We all know of the government's disaster in datacasting. The government created a unique category of broadcasting in this country. Nobody else in the world has it; nobody else in the world has even heard of it. Datacasting was a particular genre of broadcasting use, but datacasting was not to be because the restrictions on what could be broadcast and in what form were so severe. The idea was that we would have some kind of electronic content to be used by people via their TV screens, but it would not be able to compete with the existing broadcasters, hence the title datacasting. The restrictions proved to be so severe that the auction for datacasting licenses ultimately collapsed because there were no serious bidders.

We have had a similar problem with the extent of take-up of set top boxes or digital receivers. I notice that the government now claims that there are somewhere around 35,000 Australian households capable of receiving digital TV through a set top box or a receiver—there are no reliable figures available. I suspect that that is probably a very generous estimate, but let us assume for the sake of the discussion that that is the case. That means that, still, only a very tiny percentage of Australian households are able to receive digital TV, because people have no incentive, no reason, to make the transition—to pay the hundreds of dollars for a set top box or the thousands of dollars for a digital TV receiver.

On the issue of multichanneling—the option of allowing the existing broadcasters to use the spectrum that they have to broadcast several signals rather than just the one that they currently broadcast—the government has been all over the place. On numerous occasions, Senator Alston has taken the position to cabinet seeking some kind of endorsement to allow the commercial broadcasters to multichannel to broadcast several signals. The commercial broadcasters themselves are split on whether this is a good or bad idea. We see articles in the newspapers indicating that the government is about to approve multichanneling and then, a week later, that it has knocked it on the head. This has happened several times. The government appears to have no clear view on whether multichannelling should be permitted and, if so, in what circumstances, for what kind of broadcasting material and by whom.

Finally, just to complete the total picture of chaos in digital TV policy making, we have the backing away from high definition TV. The opposition do not regard this necessarily as a bad thing, because we believe that the original decision to mandate high definition TV as the technology that would be applied, that would be imposed upon Australian consumers and TV viewers, was a flawed decision. No other nation in the world has mandated high definition TV. No other nation in the world has said to its consumers, `You must make the transition to this particularly expensive form of digital broadcasting.' Australia stands alone. Most other nations have had the good sense not to mandate a particular technology. Most other nations have had the good sense to allow some degree of consumer choice.

In Australia, we have taken a different approach. That approach has been to say that there shall be digital broadcasting and it shall occur through a particular kind of technology—a very expensive technology. It is a technology that does produce very nice pictures, without doubt. But it is a technology that is very expensive and out of the range of the vast majority of Australian consumers at this present time—and is likely to be out of the range of most people for some time to come. This bill is a tacit, belated recognition that that mandating of high definition TV is a mistake. The government is now slowly edging away from this part of its digital broadcasting regime, but without any broader coherent strategy for fixing the bigger problems in digital broadcasting. So, although it is fiddling with particular aspects of the regime, it has failed to develop a big picture—pardon the pun—approach to digital broadcasting that will solve the several problems that exist in the policy regime that has been in place now for five years. The government's digital policy is incoherent; it is contradictory; it specifies particular technologies, thereby denying consumer choice; and, as a result, is distinctly unfriendly for Australian consumers.

But the real issue that we need to consider today when confronting the government's digital broadcasting approach is: how is policy being made? How is the government going about dealing with the problems of digital broadcasting, of how to ensure better television for Australian viewers and of how to ensure that we make an effective transition to the new digital world? How is the government going about ensuring that we are able to exploit all of the opportunities that digital broadcasting opens up—the capacity for a much more efficient use of spectrum, higher quality broadcasting, interactivity and all of the things that digital broadcasting offers? How is the government going about making those policy decisions? What kind of approach have the Prime Minister and Senator Alston taken to informing themselves and to dealing with all of the complicated issues associated with digital broadcasting? Perhaps the way they have done that might help to explain why the digital broadcasting policy is such a mess.

We found some answers to these questions over the course of this week. On Monday and Tuesday we discovered that both the Prime Minister and Senator Alston have been enjoying—in their homes, for periods of five to six months—the benefits of a $10,000 plasma digital television provided free of charge by Telstra. These TV sets are pretty unusual. They are 42 inches wide, produce sensational pictures, are of the highest quality and are out of the reach of the vast majority of Australian consumers. Most Australians can only dream of having a $10,000 TV set in their lounge room. The minister has had his since September last year, for five months. With a straight face, he says that he has had it in his lounge room to enhance his understanding of the benefits of digital television, to enable him to develop policy and to understand more fully all of the issues associated with digital broadcasting. In his declaration of interest, this was described as a short-term loan—five months have gone by and there is no sign of it being returned yet. It was described coyly as HDTV equipment, and no mention was made that it was going to be in his lounge room in his private home.

The Prime Minister approved this gift, this use of a high standard luxury TV in the minister's home. On the same day that these issues started to unfold we discovered why the Prime Minister approved: because he already had one himself. He was already sitting back in Kirribilli watching the cricket courtesy of the Telstra-provided luxury plasma digital TV—again, $10,000 or so worth. He already had his snout in the trough; he was already on the gravy train. It is hardly surprising that when Senator Alston checked with him about whether it was okay for him to get one the Prime Minister said, `No, go right ahead, Richard. It is an excellent idea. We need to inform our digital policy making a bit more. You need to spend some serious quality time in front of the TV set. But not just any ordinary TV set—you need to get in front of a really good one, a 10 grand one, a plasma digital TV set. I want you hard at work. I want some serious late-night sessions, some serious homework. I want you to make sure that you understand every pixel on that screen. I want to make sure that you know, in full detail, what digital TV is all about.'

The Prime Minister's loan was supposedly for three months. On 2 August he notified a declaration of interest that said he had this TV for three months loan. His spokesman told a journalist, probably several journalists, that he has not got around to returning it yet. Almost 6½ months have gone by, but the Prime Minister has not got around to returning it. He just has not had time; he is too busy. We can understand that; the Prime Minister is understandably busy. He has a war to pursue and a range of other issues that he has to deal with. What I do not understand is why anyone would envisage that he himself would be returning the TV set. I assume he has staff. I understand that various people are employed both at the Lodge and at Kirribilli. I do not really anticipate that, when the time comes for the set to be returned, if it ever is returned, the Prime Minister will hop outside one Saturday morning, get the prime ministerial ute, the family ute, back it up to the french doors at Kirribilli, open the doors, walk out with the TV set—maybe with somebody helping, because he is not a very big person; he probably will not be able to carry it by himself—put it in the back of the ute and toddle off down to the local Telstra outlet—perhaps one where they rent out TVs, although it is the first time I have heard of Telstra being involved in that—and return the set.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Order! Member for Melbourne, I am having difficulty seeing how this relates to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill.

Mr TANNER —Mr Deputy Speaker, I suggest you actually look at the legislation. The legislation is about changes to the high definition television regime.

Mr TANNER —Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to exercise the responsibilities of your position.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Member for Richmond, you will observe standing order 55.

Mr TANNER —Mr Deputy Speaker, I suggest to you that we have had the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts over the course of this week explaining that they have these televisions in order to make digital TV policy, which is what this legislation is about, so I am being directly relevant to this legislation by talking about their behaviour.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I thank the member for relating it back to the bill.

Mr TANNER —The Prime Minister has said that it was a three-month loan. More than six months have gone by and the TV is still at Kirribilli. But let us consider the government's defence. Let us think about the government's defence on this issue because its defence is that it needs these beautiful high definition TV sets in the lounge rooms of the Prime Minister and the minister for communications in order to ensure that they make decent policy and in order to ensure that the legislation before us today is of the highest possible quality and the highest calibre. Let us consider that defence. Senator Alston said on radio:

Unless you have some understanding of digital television, you really aren't competent to make policy judgments.

What I would like to know is: how long does it take you to work out that, on a 42-inch, $10,000 luxury plasma digital TV, you get really good pictures? That is all there is to it; that is about the extent of it—you get fantastic pictures on these TV sets. How long does the ordinary, half-intelligent, vaguely competent minister need to work that out? How many hours of viewing do you need? How many re-runs of Days of our Lives? How many one-day cricket games? How many football matches? How many episodes of Big Brother? How much do you have to watch in order to work out that these TV sets are really good?

This principle that has been introduced into ministerial responsibility by the Prime Minister and Senator Alston this week would be interesting if extended into some other portfolios. For example, Senator Alston, if he is lucky enough to get promoted to minister for health when the Treasurer takes over, might be able to get a bit of cosmetic surgery in order to see what he is regulating. Cosmetic surgery is pretty expensive, but he needs to understand, if he is minister for health, the sorts of issues that are involved there, so perhaps he is entitled to a facelift free of charge from one of the major private hospitals. Perhaps if he is minister for tourism he is entitled—


Mr TANNER —This is directly relevant to the issue at stake here, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Member for Melbourne, I would appreciate it if you would return to the substance of the bill.

Mr TANNER —I am talking about the substance of the issue, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne may make passing references to ministers but should not concentrate on the affairs of ministers. There are other processes of the House to allow that to occur. Please return to the substance of the bill.

Mr TANNER —If ministers are to get free benefits of this magnitude reflecting their portfolio responsibilities, a range of absurd and ultimately corrupt situations will arrive. We will have the minister for industry getting a free BMW in order to enhance his policy on tariff protection. We will have, maybe, state ministers for liquor licensing getting a crate of Chivas Regal sent round once a week in order to ensure that they understand the full impact of the liquor licensing laws. And so the list goes on. Imagine the minister for tourism's opportunities. He could go to the Greek islands maybe once a year for a couple of months to make sure that the extent to which they compete with Australia's industry is not enhanced. These are the sorts of things we are talking about here—outright, ultimately corrupt behaviour. We are talking about ministers and the Prime Minister feathering their own nests, taking the opportunity to misuse their positions to benefit themselves and trying to clothe it with the dignity of decision making of this parliament—and trying to suggest that somehow it is connected with parliamentary decisions about digital broadcasting.

It is also extraordinary that Senator Alston chose to make one public appearance about this issue to defend himself and it was on John Laws's radio program. What occurred there was one of the most supine, sycophantic performances in the long and inglorious history of grovelling journalism. Mr Laws spent most of the interview complaining about the ABA inquiry into his own behaviour but managed to put such incisive challenging questions to the minister as, `If you're to be instructed on digital television, you've got to be able to see it, haven't you?' That was the sort of difficult and challenging question that Mr Laws put to the minister. Why would the minister choose John Laws for the one serious appearance that he took to defend his conduct? John Laws is sponsored by Telstra to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. How likely is it that a broadcaster who is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars—huge sums of money—to promote Telstra is going to ask hard questions of the minister about allegations of impropriety and misbehaviour by the minister for communications and Telstra itself? It was hardly a coincidental choice by the minister. It was a cowardly decision to not front up to the Australian people and to not front up to serious questioning. Senator Alston chose to defend himself on one media outlet only; the one where he knew he would get a very soft go. And what a soft go it was—what a grovelling, sycophantic performance it was. This minister cannot defend the indefensible. The real position is that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications and Information Technology have their snouts in the trough like two-bob spivs. In fact, their snouts are in so deep that they are in danger of suffocating.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Melbourne is defying the chair. I invite him to return to the substance of the bill.

Mr TANNER —I am talking about the substance of the bill, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne will not reflect on other members or senators.

Mr TANNER —The defence of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications and Information Technology against the claims that they were improperly receiving these televisions from Telstra was that this was enabling them to make digital TV policy—which is what this bill is about—and I am criticising that defence. It is directly relevant to the bill. They have been sitting in their lounge rooms, wallowing in luxury, with $10,000 TVs that are out of the reach of the vast majority of Australians, watching the cricket, with no intention of returning the TV sets. Senator Alston was even arrogant enough to boast about how good the football season is going to be. He was even inviting opposition senators to come around to his home to watch the football on his TV. The Prime Minister has had the arrogance to say that he will return the television in a few weeks. It is just a coincidence that the World Cup is on at the moment. I have no doubt that he will get around to returning the TV at the end of March, after the World Cup has concluded.

Why are we considering this bill today if the Prime Minister and the minister for communications have not finished their deliberations? It would appear, given that they intend to keep the television sets for a while, that their deep research, their arduous homework into digital television late at night at home, is unfinished. It would seem that they are still there on the job, working hard and considering in great detail—with great effort and with many hours of arduous work—the merits of digital television. I am a bit puzzled as to why we are here in the House today considering this bill if they have not finished their work. Perhaps it would be appropriate to adjourn consideration of this legislation until the Prime Minister and Senator Alston have had their fill of their luxury $10,000 plasma digital TV sets, until they have finally worked out that these are pretty good TV sets and until they have actually determined where they think digital broadcasting policy should go.

Of course the reason we are considering the bill today and the reason they are not deferring it is that their defence against the claim that they are wallowing in luxury and that they are simply feathering their own nests and exploiting their power over Telstra by having Telstra provide them with free luxury TVs in order to enhance their decision making, in order to enhance their development of policy, is patent rubbish. It is complete and utter nonsense. We are proceeding with digital TV policy making and decisions about these issues here and now, but they are still happy to keep these television sets in their lounge rooms. The greed and arrogance that this behaviour reveals go right to the very heart of this government. It is one rule for Liberal ministers and one rule for everybody else—for the ordinary people of Australia, the vast majority of whom can only dream of spending $10,000 or more on a TV set.

It would seem that Telstra has a new marketing strategy. Instead of the old hoary approach of buy one, get one free, it has a special deal: get one free, get one free. But it is only available to ministers in the Howard government. Or maybe it took the approach of `join up a friend'. John Howard got his free TV set, provided he let Telstra also give a free TV set to Richard Alston. The real digital television policy of this government is magnificent television reception in the lounge rooms of the minister for communications and the Prime Minister, and nothing for everybody else. The government are treating Telstra as if it were their own private Radio Rentals; that they can just dip in and grab the highest quality, most expensive and most luxurious consumer electronic equipment for use in their own private homes.

At the same time as they are treating Telstra as their own private plaything that is showering them with gifts, they are in breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Do members remember the ministerial code of conduct? It vaguely rings a bell in my mind; it seems to have been mentioned once or twice in recent years. But it is now so decrepit, so discredited and so ignored that you would need to be committing mass murder in order to be in breach of the code, in order for the Prime Minister to take action. His behaviour with this television set reveals why—because he is in breach himself. Both he and Senator Alston have breached the provision of the ministerial code of conduct which requires that ministers shall not receive gifts which create an appearance of improper benefit. So they are in breach once. Secondly, they are in breach by failing to amend their statements of interest at an appropriate time. The standing orders require that amendments must be made with 28 days of a change of circumstances or a new benefit occurring. The Prime Minister recorded his so-called loan as being for three months. More than six months have gone by, but he has not amended that declaration of interest. Senator Alston described his as a short-term loan. We are now heading towards six months for his so-called loan, and he has not amended that declaration.

But the most important aspect of the breach of the ministerial code of conduct—and something that is of great interest to Australian consumers and to people who are out there earning an ordinary, fair day's pay and trying to buy themselves some reasonable consumer goods to make their lives a little more enjoyable—is that ministers are prohibited from receiving gifts of more than $500. This is an entirely appropriate rule; it is just a pity it is not being enforced. They have a choice. If you, as a minister or as the Prime Minister, receive a gift that is valued at more than $500, you are required either to return it or to pay the difference—between $500 and the total value of the gift—to the government. In this case, the value of the gift that the Prime Minister and Senator Alston have received is in the vicinity of several thousand dollars.

We rang Harvey Norman and asked what the rental figure for a TV of this kind was. They said that they did not rent them out on a short-term basis but that they did have rental plans for two and three years. The three-year figure was $476 per month. The two-year figure was some $630 per month. So, if the cheapest available rental figure is $476 per month and you multiply that by five or six months, you would have a benefit worth several thousand dollars. Both Senator Alston and the Prime Minister have received a free gift—the value of that TV, which is worth several thousand dollars, way above the limit for ministerial gifts—and they should be paying back that money.

The final observation that is relevant to this is about the role of Telstra. This behaviour by Telstra is absolutely reprehensible. It is inexcusable. Telstra does not manufacture digital televisions; it does not retail them. Telstra has no involvement in the distribution of digital TVs. Although Telstra is part of the Foxtel consortium, the issues associated with digital television that provide the flimsy excuse—the complete fig leaf—for the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts receiving these TV sets relates to free-to-air broadcasting, not pay TV. The hardware that people have in their homes, the TV sets which are also used and connected to Foxtel, Optus or Austar, are driven by free-to-air broadcasting policy. In spite of its occasional ambitions to buy a free-to-air network, Telstra is not involved in free-to-air broadcasting. So we might well ask what on earth Telstra thinks it is doing providing for free luxury TV sets to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, when it has no direct involvement in the sector for which the purported reason for having these sets relates to. We could draw the conclusion that the cosy, incestuous relationship between Telstra, the Prime Minister and Senator Alston is all about privatisation.

The senior management of Telstra are absolutely gung-ho for privatisation, because they know that their remuneration will skyrocket when Telstra is privatised. They know that they will be able to pursue a whole range of crazy adventures and get more into the dotcom world and things like that if Telstra is privatised. They know that they will not have to worry so much about their obligations to ensure that all Australians have decent telecommunications services regardless of where they live or what their income is—the sort of boring old public sector obligations that Telstra has had throughout its history and that it should continue to have. They want to get rid of those things, so they are desperate for Telstra to be privatised. The government wants to privatise Telstra, and now you have the management of Telstra giving the two key people in that decision making process, for free, luxury $10,000 TV sets for their indefinite use. If that is not creating a perception of improper benefit, improper influence and conflict of interest, I do not know what is. The only proper thing for the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to do in this situation is to return the TV sets immediately—do not hang around waiting for the footy season or the World Cup cricket; return these television sets immediately and pay the difference. It is fair enough to take $500 worth—we can live with that—but they should pay the difference that they have effectively received in benefits. They have received several thousand dollars worth of benefit from these free televisions. They should pay for that and apologise to the Australian people. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not seeking to deny the Bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for:

(1) further fiddling with its disintegrating digital television regime without addressing the overall problems inherent in the regime;

(2) refusing to acknowledge that its digital television regime is failing, particularly with respect to the very poor consumer take up of digital receivers and the lack of consumer interest in high definition television;

(3) creating confusion in the broadcasting sector by constantly changing its position on multi channelling;

(4) maintaining a failed datacasting strategy which has been completely rejected by the media sector;

(5) mandating high definition television against worldwide trends, but then tinkering with the high definition quota to make it easier for broadcasters to meet this requirement; and

(6) encouraging consumers to purchase high definition television but then reducing the broadcaster's obligation to provide regular high definition content”.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Snowdon —I second the amendment.